Blood Jars and Magic:
A Short Guide to Menstrual Art
 |  Shauna Osborn



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             ... The blood splatters on my feet. I step in it and get it everywhere. Sometimes I don’t clean it up right away. Messy, messy. Finger paints in kindergarten messy ... By the simple act of not wearing panties, I can stand in the middle of my kitchen and change the way it looks. Without moving a muscle, a pool of blood appears between my feet. Like magic.
—Inga Muscio


             Michelle Owens has a mason jar with a rusty lid placed discretely by her toilet, where she regularly dumps the contents of her menstrual cup during her blood cycle. She tells me she uses it (the blood, that is) in her artwork, painting on canvas and sketchpads, using either her fingers or a brush. I ask her if the canvas or paper holds that metallic blood scent once it dries, and she laughs, her short, blond, spiral curls bouncing from the effort. She motions for me to follow as she walks to her desk, where she thumbs through a pile of sketches and then thrusts one of her blood paintings under my nose. Grinning, she says, “You tell me.”
             Michelle’s painting practices were quite different from any reaction I had witnessed from a woman about her monthly cycle. In fact, I think this was the first positive response to menstruation I had witnessed. Michelle’s practice alarmed me as well as intrigued me. My image of her had changed so fully, I began to detect freakish qualities in the way she talked and her manner of walking. The quirky elements of her personality, which had drawn me to strike up a conversation with her in the first place, now seemed suspect. All because she had found an artistic way to utilize her blood. But more than that—because she had an intimate working relationship with it.
             When I met Michelle as a teenager, I didn’t know much about my body or about women in general. I had never, ever touched my menstrual blood on purpose. The only person that I had ever seen who touched her menstrual blood purposefully was Sissy Spacek in those memorable first scenes of Carrie, and that was before she registered what it was she was touching. We all know what happened to her.
             Those of us who are susceptible to the moon’s pull and have the ability to bleed in an approximate twenty-eight day pattern, have a hard time finding positive images associated with this blood. What we get instead are horror films like Carrie, where the onset of the menstrual cycle leads to the main character’s transformation to a magical freakish monster, which then cumulates a large number of deaths. Even finding an emotionally neutral handling of this particular situation is next to impossible (unless you count those dry medical textbook articles). Instead, we see advertisements for the latest birth control implement that allows you to put off menstruating all but four times a year. Then, we watch as the lines at the gynecologist offices flow out past the dumpsters and begin to wind around the corner.
             We’re not the only group in history of humans to hold these loaded connotations of menstruation. It’s a fairly universal and historical occurrence, with each era, community, and religious/mystical order creating its own distinct method to attend to the monthly blood question. The one thing that remains constant is that the blood from a person’s uterus has the power to create vast changes to those who come in contact with it—making any person who touches it unclean, gain magical powers, or bound (physically or essentially) to the one who lost the blood.
             I didn’t touch Michelle’s blood painting. I would have had to have taken my hands out of my pockets, and that would have been enough to break my laidback facade. So I adjusted my head to where my nostrils would be closer to the page and took a small whiff. Only the familiar smell of acrylics on canvas paper. “Do you use acrylics a lot when painting?” I ask, maneuvering us ever so strategically toward a conversation on art supplies and preferences, rather than continuing with the blood stuff.
             Four or five years, a couple of identity crises, three female roommates, and a ton of gender/queer research later, I’m cruising the information superhighway and come across The Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health (mum.org)—a virtual museum featuring artwork about menstruation from around the world.
             The first image I see on the site was that of the goddess painted on paper in menstrual blood. The work consists of various rounded strokes from a brush or finger creating a curvaceous outline of an obviously breasted body sitting. There are two pictures of the image—one taken when the blood was still wet. The other, once it had dried. This was to show how the shade of blood changes from a brighter, more primary red to that of a rust/earth red and how this pigment change affected the aesthetics of the painting itself.
             Created by an 18-year old in Vienna, who began painting with her blood to cope with the reproductive organ abnormalities recently diagnosed by her doctor, the painting mesmerized me as I began to run an extensive list of therapeutic potentials for this art form. I clicked through several artists’ paintings created with menstrual blood, not unlike those Michelle had been creating when I met her. I then began to wonder if that’s why Michelle started practicing such art, although she never claimed any particular reason when I asked much later in our friendship. “I don’t know. Why doesn’t everyone?” she answered. At the time, I thought she was just being flippant, but now I begin to see she might be right. There doesn’t need to be a why as much as a why not.
             Later that day, I stumbled upon a photograph of the first-prize winner of the 73rd Crocker-Kingsley exhibition—a quilt created from 70-year-old texts and photographs, lint, and menstrual blood. A photo was paired with each text about constriction—how to dress, how to clean house, how to behave in public, how to treat your husband—which was torn up and smeared with blood to emphasize certain words and to block out others. Vertical rows of lint were added, as the artist M. Parfitt explains, to tie in “with how these women were treated. They were sort of ignored and invisible, unless they followed these behaviors. Their lives were insignificant, just like the lint. But, if you look at the lint, it’s really interesting, so maybe these women had interesting lives, too.”
             The magic of women’s lives, filtered through lint and blood. The results sewn into a quilt display. The weaving of feminine gendered objects with the ordinary refuse of laundry and menses. The layers of meaning within this project were astounding. Quilting, considered by many as “woman’s work” being created entirely from the products of other types of “woman’s work.” Not only is that a prize-worthy piece of art, but an envy-creating one, as well. How many other women artists are scratching their heads now, thinking, “Why in the hell didn’t I think of doing that?”

♥ End ♥



Shauna Osborn is a Comanche/German mestiza who works as an instructor, wordsmith, and community organizer in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She received her Master of Fine Arts from New Mexico State University in 2005. Shauna has won various awards for her academic research, photography, and poetry. Recently, she received a National Poetry Award from the New York Public Library.


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